I come across any number of young (and some not-so-young) creatives who are freelancing or setting up small studios, who don’t have a clue what to do outside of design work. So today I’ll begin a short series of posts aimed at giving some insight into how a small or freelance studio runs – starting with the tools you need.

No shortage of choice

Let me begin by saying that there is no one-set-fits-all solution here. In today’s market, there are multiple options available to freelancers and business owners alike – from free to fully paid Software as a Service (Saas) solutions. So this post will focus on the tools that I use, and have used since setting up my first studio in 2006.

Admin tools may not seem to be the logical choice to start when talking about a design business, after all it’s tools like Adobe’s CC suite that we use every day isn’t it? That’s true, and I’ll go over those in a later post, but without tools for estimating, invoicing and managing workflow, it’ll be a bit tricky to run a business smoothly (and even solo freelancing is a business).

So, here we go:


XeroYes, accounting. This word send shivers of fear down every creative’s spine. Yet, it’s not that difficult with the right tools and a good accountant.

For me, you simply cannot go past Xero as the best solution for running small business accounts. I’ve personally used Xero since 2008, when they were very new. Everything is done online – from linking to and reconciling your bank accounts to working out your GST returns to running financial reports. You can do your invoicing, quoting, purchase orders, etc directly through Xero; or like me you can use tools that tie in to Xero.

Your accountant can (should) have direct access to your Xero account, and it makes managing all things financial pretty simple. It does help that the interface is simple and beautifully designed. The iOS app is really neat too.

Being a Saas operation, Xero is paid for monthly and they have rates depending on business size and other options (e.g. multi-currency if you have offshore clients like I do).

Whilst an accountant isn’t a tool, I do highly recommend finding a good one. Here in New Zealand we have a new group of accounting businesses that are cloud based and geared specifically towards small-medium business – Beany (who I use) and Rightway are two good examples.

Project Management

HarvestKeeping track of time is super-critical to any freelancer or design studio – even when your pricing is value-based. So having a tool that can keep track of projects and their related time is a good thing to have. In my case, I’ve used Harvest for several years now.

One of the best things about Harvest is its start/stop timer app; but it does more than just track time – I use it for estimating/quoting and invoicing too. It connects to my Xero account, so any invoices generated are added directly. Harvest also works as a simple CRM and has an accompanying iOS app.

Two other options worth looking at are Roll and WorkflowMax.

asana-logoOnce clients and projects are set up in Harvest, the next step is to manage the workflow. For this I use Asana.

I took a long time to find the right tool for this, because there are simply so many options. Asana won the day because it broke down projects the way that I do – Team / Client / Task / Sub-Task – each with corresponding dates, reminders and the ability to assign tasks to team-members. It also has discussion functions that are linked to tasks, which means that communication about projects is kept tied to the workflow.

Asana has a free option, and for bigger businesses has different pricing structures. I prefer running Asana as a desktop app rather than in a browser, so use AppSana for doing that.

Many other businesses use a combination of Trello and Slack (in fact Slack is worth a post on its own). For freelancers Wunderlist is another great option.

Update 06/06/16: Another tool that’s come to my attention is Time Doctor. I haven’t had a chance to properly get into it yet, but it looks like it covers a few time recording bases.

File Management

Google DriveOn any given day a designer will deal with a bunch of digital files – images, vector files, InDesign documents, PDFs, etc. In a small team, these files often need to be shared between a few people, so having options for this is important. Most freelancers or small studios don’t have the budget for physical servers, so that’s where Google Drive steps in.

Whether you love or hate Google they have created some great tools, and Drive is one of them. In their own words, Drive allows you to “Store, sync and share files with ease”. At $5 per user per month, it’s hardly a bank breaker; although it’s worth noting that it also chomps broadband when syncing, especially if you have big Photoshop files for example.

The other tool that I use for file storage and sharing is Dropbox (I use their Pro service – US$99/year).

In a future post I’ll talk about file structure and naming conventions, which are an oft-overlooked part of file management.

Email, Notes & Calendar

evernote_logo_4c-lrgAs part of my task management set, I use Evernote. In fact, it’s probably the tool I’ve used for the longest and I’d be lost without it…

Evernote is where I take briefing notes, transfer task instructions for emails, clip articles and tutorials and much, much more. I use the desktop, iPhone and iPad apps depending on where I am.

PostboxAs a Mac user, I use Postbox for handling emails rather than Mac Mail. Postbox handles Gmail beautifully (all of my emails are setup through Gmail) and I can sync emails directly to Evernote, which is great when you have long lists of amends to deal with. I use the standard iOS Mail apps on my phone and iPad.

SunriseAnd last, but far from least, I use Sunrise for my Calendar. Again, I use it because it works so well with Google Calendar and I prefer to use a desktop app over in browser. Sunrise also syncs with Asana, LinkedIn and calendars of interest (NBA games for example – I follow Oklahoma City Thunder). It also has a stunning iOS app.

There are other communications tools that I haven’t mentioned (e.g. Skype) as I’ll do a separate post about those.

No two studios are the same

I’ll end this post with this: as I said at the beginning, the way I do it will differ from others. But hopefully this will help to give an idea of what’s involved, what is out there and which tools are helpful for running a business day-to-day.

I’d be curious to know what other freelancers and studios are using. Use the comments to add to the conversation.

Next post: Design Tools

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!